Here’s the skinny on columnar trees

Columnar, fastigiate, slender, narrow, or skinny: By any name, columnar trees are perfectly suited for today’s landscapes where real estate is at a premium. Big houses on small lots, street-hugging, multi-story townhouses, narrow planting strips between sidewalk and street, and postage stamp yards are among modern urban design and landscaping challenges.

These columnar cultivars are tailored to perform in tight spaces or where a strong vertical design element is desired. Those grown as hedges are effective visual screens, while single specimens mature to become landscape exclamation points. Fortunately, there’s a deciduous tree tailor-made to fit most spaces and growing conditions. Three of the trees presented here are narrow selections of North American native species. The others are top-performing hybrids or columnar selections of time-tested urban trees. All are genetically destined to grow straight, strong and narrow.

Armstrong Gold® Maple

Acer rubrum ‘JFS-KW78’

This slender shade tree sets a new gold standard for columnar trees, Introduced in 2013. it has exceeded our goal to develop and introduce a cultivar that would be an improvement over the popular and widely planted Armstrong Maple. Selection criteria included vigor, form, foliage quality and color, and overall appearance and performance. Brighter and richer fall colors, ranging from gold to rich golden orange, are its most visible improved trait.

Greater branch density and more compact growth habit give a denser appearance as it reaches a height of about 40’ x 12’. Stout branches with open angles reduce pruning costs in the nursery and reduce long-term pruning and maintenance needs in the landscape. Hardiness is Zone 4.

Prairie Sentinel® Hackberry

Celtis occidentalis ‘JFS-KSU1’

A perfect fit for restricted spaces in the toughest climates, this North American native tree keeps its tightly fastigiate form as it reaches a height of 45’ x 12’ spread. The parent tree is a narrow spire that towers over a rocky, barren plateau where it was discovered on the rugged high plains of western Kansas. Medium green leaves and yellow fall color are typical of the species, as is its hardiness through USDA Zone 4. Like the species, it has great adaptability to heat, drought and cold on the prairie and beyond.

Javelin® Pear

Pyrus ‘NCPX’ PP 26539

Pink buds that open to white flowers in early spring are soon followed by glossy leaves that emerge purple and mature to dark green. Hybridized and selected by Dr. Tom Ranney of North Carolina State University, this hybrid has superior fireblight resistance and has proven to be tolerant of heat and drought. Fall color is orange red. A strong central leader and upright branches with open angles promise ease of care. Extremely narrow form makes this ornamental pear hybrid a perfect fit for the space between sidewalk and street and other space-challenged landscapes. Hardy through USDA Zone 5, its mature height and spread is 35’ x 10’.

Musashino Columnar Zelkova

Zelkova serrata ‘Musashino’

Ideally suited for narrow street use, this unusually slender selection of Japanese Zelkova was a popular and successful street tree in Japan for many years before its introduction to the United States around the turn of the century. Named for a city in the Tokyo prefecture, it is well-suited for narrow streets, thanks to tightly upright branches that allow good vehicle and pedestrian passage. Mature height and spread are approximately 45’ x 15’.

In recognition of its adaptability to harsh urban growing conditions, it was named the 2016 Urban Tree of the Year by the Society of Municipal Arborists. Cold hardiness, tolerances of drought, heat and deicing salt sprays, and general adaptability, are among winning characteristics cited by SMA.

Northern Sentinel® Honeylocust

Gleditsia triacanthos ‘JFS GMorgenson1’

Sharp-eyed plantsman Greg Morgenson spotted this unique honeylocust growing in a South Dakota landscape and saw its potential as a street tree for cold climates. Narrowly upright growth habit combined with open branch angle attachment is unique among the Honeylocust cultivars and contributes to its storm-resistant structure. Fine textured, medium green leaflets cast filtered shade and turn yellow in autumn.

Mature height and spread are approximately 45’ x 25’. The parent has never been observed to have suffered ice or snow damage. Nor has it produced seed, although we can make no claim of its being seedless under all growing conditions.

Persian Spire™ Parrotia

Parrotia persica ‘JL Columnar’ PP 24951

This uniquely narrow cultivar is a perfect fit for courtyards, containers, rooftop gardens, beneath utility lines, and other confined planting spaces. Flowers composed of showy red stamens provide a subtle show of color in late winter.  Refined foliage emerges purple and matures to green with purple-tinted margins that linger into the summer months. Fall color is a bright medley of orange, reds and yellows, with burgundy highlights. The tree pictured is thriving in the J. Frank Schmidt Jr. Arboretum in Boring. A proven performer in landscapes across the continent, it is hardy through USDA Zone 5. Mature height and spread of this diminutive selection: 25’ x 10’ earn it a spot on our UtiliTrees™ list.

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